Over the last decade or so, buying things and services over the internet has become so popular that, for many people, traditional shops have been reduced to being merely display centres or collection points. From the very beginning I enthusiastically joined that trend. The main reasons for that have included an incomparably greater selection of items than any traditional shop could ever provide in an inevitably limited space, and usually lower prices. The sheer convenience of doing the shopping from home, and at any time of day or night, is somehow an additional bonus. Unlike with brick-and-mortar shops, we can’t try out those desired items prior to purchase. In fact, we buy a promise over the internet and we trust it to be fulfilled when the parcel arrives. This entire business model is built on customers’ trust, far greater than that required in the high street.
‘Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ With these words, Elizabeth greets Mary in today’s gospel. These words are essentially the definition of what being a Christian means in practical terms. Over the centuries, philosophers have discussed the nature of divinity; theologians have clashed over particular aspects of the faith; disputes over the rituals have divided the Christian community. Some theological or pastoral disagreements have led to insurmountable problems, divisions and even religious wars. But under that massive pile of imperfect, flawed human interpretations of the faith, sometimes deeply hidden, lies this most fundamental aspect of our faith: the belief that God will fulfil his promises.
I think that what lies at the root of our struggles is how to define what those promises actually are. In my career I’ve come across many people who have been embittered, disappointed or who have downright rejected God because of his apparent failure to fulfil his own promises. I’ve listened to an endless list of misfortunes and disasters which has been used as ammunition to accuse God of his untrustworthiness. Only when we have dug a bit deeper into those circumstances has it turned out that most of the people were actually let down by their own expectations – misplaced or overblown, or both. Those expectations, mistaken by those people as promises of God, turned out to be the causes of the failure.
In the entire New Testament we find zero promises of earthly success and prosperity resulting from religious piety and devotion. On the contrary, there are very many clear and direct warnings against such an attitude. It doesn’t mean that we are supposed to be unsuccessful, miserable, unhappy creatures if we are faithful to God. It means exactly the opposite as – thanks to our faith – we are gifted with the ability to make sense out of even the most unpleasant situations, and to find undimmed light even in the deepest darkness. This faculty springs up from the belief that everything is temporary and passing with regard to the prospect of life eternal. And such a life, never-ending, free of corruption and death, is the promise given by God to each and every one of us. Advent, the period which is coming to its completion this week, though obscured by the welter of overly-commercialised glitter, has been given to remind us about that final moment when we will meet the Lord at the end of the road, when He will lead us into the Father’s house.